The Raspberry Pi Zero, a compact and remarkably cheap (just $5) iteration of the popular mini-computer, has proven to be even more versatile than its predecessors.
In this tutorial, we’re going to take a common Raspberry Pi project—converting an old TV into a retro gaming console—and walk through it step by step, giving you all you need to build your own Raspberry Pi Zero retro gaming station as simply as possible.
Building a Simple Retro Gaming Machine
You may have seen projects like this elsewhere online. The aim is simple: fit a Raspberry Pi into a TV, and enjoy retro gaming. However, there is a problem. Almost all of these projects over-complicate what is a pretty straightforward project.
We aim to fix that with this guide, which will help you:
- Choose a TV
- Open it safely
- Find space for your Raspberry Pi Zero
- Identify the connections you need to make
- Add power and sound
- Play retro games
It’s not rocket science!
What You’ll Need
Before you get started, you’ll need the following:
- An old TV
- Raspberry Pi Zero
- Compact USB hub
- HDMI-to-VGA adapter for audio output or USB soundcard
- 5mm stereo-audio-to-RCA-Y cable
- USB game controller
Depending on the complexity of fitting the Pi Zero into your TV of choice, you may also need:
- Dremel or similar handheld cutter
- Heated glue gun
Deciding on an old TV to use is tough. But whatever you do, the television you use should be an LCD TV—not just for the ease of working with it, but for safety reasons too.
The Dangers of DIY With CRT Televisions
If you choose a CRT, be aware that ripping the back off will leave you exposed to dangerous high voltages, even on a set that has been switched off and unplugged.
Additionally, damage to the tube itself can result in explosion, in some cases large enough to leave holes in walls. See this iFixit thread for more information.
If you’re experienced in working with TV sets with backs removed, and if you’re extremely confident that you won’t hurt yourself, then carry on with a CRT. Otherwise, we highly recommend an LCD TV unit. It may be a little more expensive (ours cost around $25), but it is much safer to modify.
Better still, LCD displays often come with compartments that make the actual monuting of the Raspberry Pi Zero easier. Take advantage!
RetroPie and the Raspberry Pi Zero
Before starting, you should have also downloaded and flashed the RetroPie image to your Raspberry Pi Zero microSD card. See our guide on installing an operating system on the Raspberry Pi for full details.
Make sure you’re using the right version of RetroPie. Download the build for the Raspberry Pi Zero rather than the Raspberry Pi 2 or 3! You’ll find it at retropie.org.uk/download.
All set? Let’s go.
Step 1: Open the TV
Take the optimum safety precautions when opening your TV. Make sure it is disconnected from any power supply.
Modern portables often have doors on the back that you can take advantage of—in short, they save you having to hack your TV case with a handheld cutter.
When opening a TV, you’ll normally find the screws you need to undo are marked in some way, typically by an arrow or a circle. Loosen these to remove the back of the TV. If your TV also has a battery, make sure to remove that too.
With the back removed, identify the space you’re going to mount the Raspberry Pi Zero. Consider space for the adapters you’ll be using, and any cables that need to run out of the TV case (e.g. the Pi’s power cable, or the USB hub).
Step 2: Identify Your Video Connection
If you’re fortunate enough to have a portable TV with a HDMI port, then the smart option is to connect the Pi Zero’s HDMI adapter, and loop a cable around to the HDMI port.
Again, bear in mind the space you’re going to need for this. The cavity where you’ll be mounting the Pi will need space not just for the adapter, but the HDMI cable connector.
You can also use the permanent option of soldering a pair of wires to the Pi Zero’s RCA video output, with the other ends of the wires soldered to an RCA connector. Our guide to connecting a Raspberry Pi Zero to a TV with an RCA cable explains how to do this.
Step 3: Attach the USB Hub and Raspberry Pi Zero
You’re going to need a USB hub for game controllers and keyboards. With the Raspberry Pi Zero’s limited dimensions, there’s only space for one micro USB connector.
Although a micro-USB-to-full-USB adapter is included, this will still require you to add a USB hub for multiple devices. You can find a good USB hub on Amazon pretty easily.
It’s a good idea to connect your hub so that plugging cables in is easy. This might mean cutting away some of the TV’s chassis and hot gluing the hub, ports facing outwards.
For the Raspberry Pi Zero itself, you should be able to find a way to mount the device using the screw holes. If screws aren’t available or practical, use standoffs to attach the Pi Zero to the chassis (either connecting them to structural supports, or just gluing them). Make sure the Raspberry Pi Zero is mounted close enough for the USB hub to be attached!
Step 4: Add a Power Supply
Typically, you won’t be able to use your TV’s power supply. Instead, use the Raspberry Pi Zero’s power cable, perhaps in tandem with the USB hub’s power supply, ensuring that both devices get enough juice to cope with demand.
The USB power cable could then be run through the TV’s chassis to a suitable adapter, so you’re powering the Pi up independently from the TV (like a standard games console).
Note: If the Pi is ever shut down incorrectly, the microSD card can become corrupted. A robust power source is important.
If the TV you’re using has a USB port, it can be tempting to use this as the power supply for your Raspberry Pi Zero. For good results long-term, don’t do this as you’re unlikely to get enough power from the device.
Step 5: Add Sound
Unlike the other Raspberry Pi devices, the Pi Zero doesn’t feature analog audio, so in order to enjoy the soundtrack from the games you’re about to play, you’ll need to utilize the HDMI audio output. The most cost-effective way of doing this is to employ an HDMI-to-VGA adapter with an audio out socket.
Another option is the pHAT DAC, which can be mounted on the Raspberry Pi Zero with a GPIO header (included). This isn’t ideal if you’re short of space inside your TV, but it’s a useful piece of kit to have.
Once connected and fitted to your Pi Zero, connect the audio cables to your TV’s audio-in ports. An adapter may be required.
Step 6: Replace the Back Cover on Your TV
With everything connected, a power supply for the Pi, USB hub and HDMI adapter added and hardware glued into place, it’s time to replace the back cover on your TV set. Take care with this, as you may have some of the newly fitted hardware causing a problem with correct placement.
Screw the back onto the TV set again, and set it up on your desk, making sure to have a keyboard close by in case of problems with the Raspberry Pi booting up.
Step 7: Boot Up With RetroPie
With everything ready, it’s time to boot your Raspberry Pi. If the RetroPie image has been written correctly, the operating system should boot and present you with the GameStation user interface.
You shouldn’t need a keyboard at this stage: the game controller you connect will be detected, and after a brief moment of configuration, you’ve got everything you need to start playing retro games!
Our guide to using RecalBox and RetroPie, which includes the steps you’ll need to transfer ROMs to your Raspberry Pi, will show you everything you need at this point.
Just remember to safely shut down the Raspberry Pi when you’re done in order to maintain the integrity of the SD card’s data.
A Dedicated Retro Gaming System Done Easy!
Retro gaming system builds can end up being overly complicated. If you’re looking for a way to get started and finished on the same day, then using an old LCD TV in this way is the best option. You can then adapt the build into something else later on, if necessary.
When you’re done with this, you may want to keep going with these other retro gaming projects for the Raspberry Pi Zero.